The Perversion of Chief Shingwaukonse’s Vision

As I drive through the northern stretches of the Great Lakes, I’m discovering chapters of Canadian history that are new to me.  Many of these chapters feature more positive relations between First Nations and Europeans – chapters in which the two appeared to interact with some degree of mutual acceptance and some degree of mutual respect.

That clearly ended at some point, to give way to the attempt by one culture to eradicate the other.  But when?

In this part of Canada, the transition can be told in the history of a single school.

After leading troops to defend this land from the United States in the War of 1812, Chief Shingwaukonse of the Anishnaabe articulated a vision.  With the British thoroughly established in Upper Canada at that time, he advocated establishing “teaching wigwams” so the two cultures could learn from one another.  Wherever youth of the two cultures lived in proximity, they would learn each other’s languages and each other’s ways.

In 1832, Chief Shingwaukonse snowshoed all the way from Sault Ste Marie to the settler capital of York to propose joint funding for this ambitious new vision.  His appeal appears to have been taken seriously by the colonial authorities of the day. 

By the 1840s, however, a growing British presence gave rise to plans to emphasize one culture above all else.  From the unenlightened Governor Francis Bond Head to the founder of the modern Ontario education system Egerton Ryerson, leaders of the British community showed little interest in the languages and the cultures that had predominated in these lands for so long.

By 1870, the chief had died and his son Augustine Shingwauk had assumed his leadership. The new chief renewed requests for resources to educate the youth of his community.  This time funds were requested of the Anglican Church. The Anglican Church of Canada answered the call and established the Shingwauk Institute.

In the decades since Chief Shingwaukonse’s vision, a new model had taken prominence in Ontario education. This was the dawn of free and universal public education based on compulsory attendance. The other major difference from Chief Shingwaukonse’s vision was that only the language and culture from one nation would be taught.

That school operated for a century, until converted to a residence for other schools in the area in 1970.  The Shingwauk Institute became the model for dozens of other residential schools across the country, once the federal government took up the cause and reproduced the early “success” of the Sault Ste Marie school. 

The history of the Shinwauk Institute suggests that the transition from cultural diversity to cultural dominance occurred in a single generation.  These were turbulent times for settler society.  They featured a violent rebellion in 1837, the merger of English and French communities into a single new colony in the 1840s, the advent of democracy in 1848, Confederation in 1867, and the imposition of Canadian rule over the Métis in 1870.

By 1870 the die was cast, and it didn’t take long for tragedy to set in.  The extraordinary archives now housed in the former grounds of the Shingwauk Institute document the first student dying in 1876.  The founding Principal, the enterprising Anglican chaplain E.F. Wilson, described student deaths during this first decade with empathy: 

Elijah Sahgucheway, who died while a student in the Shingwauk Institute - Sault Ste Marie, May 29, 1881


"Rev. Wilson wrote that William [Sahgucheway] was very upset about [his brother] Elijah and quoted him saying ‘I did so love Elijah…I want to go to him.’ When William himself passed away on May 16, 1882, Rev. Wilson was extremely distraught, and wrote letters telling people he was ‘bowed down with grief’ and that William ‘was my adopted child and I loved him as my own son.’ He even stated multiple times that this death affected his as no other had since the death of his mother 20 years before."

from Shingwauk Narratives: Sharing Residential School History

Would that the thousands of deaths in schools like these, eventually numbering over 100 from coast to coast, have received the same level of attention?


Showing 1 reaction

Please check your e-mail for a link to activate your account.